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Listening to the mouse that roared

Victoria Suffield is heartened when her brand loyalty is rewarded at a high street rival's expense

I am happy to acknowledge that I have quite a highly-developed sense of protectionism when it comes to my business. It probably goes with the territory, but I think I am particularly sensitive because although Winchester is a city in name, it is barely a city in terms of population and footfall. So I am always very keen to ensure a good and rigorous degree of exclusivity with any of the brands in the store, and I am more than ready to argue the merits of exclusivity both for the shop and for the brands I sell.

Usually, an unwritten code is at work between designers, sales managers, agents and retailers, but sometimes it has to be more clearly elucidated and it can take an annoying knock back to underline the importance of clarity whenwe're all trying to carve out our own niche in a crowded market.

So, seeing one of our most important accessories labels prominently displayed in the window of a high street multiple last week left me feeling frustrated, furious and strangely powerless.

While my initial reaction was to scream for the product to be removed from the rival shop and my position as sole stockist to be upheld, my second thought was to question my position in the buying power equation and wonder if my screaming would carry much weight.

In such situations retail can often be reduced into simple dichotomies: a straightforward fight between a small independent and a much bigger multiple, a question of niche positioning versus mass marketing or kudos versus volume. Or, put simply, an issue of not incredibly impressive revenue from screaming lady versus much greater revenue from more emotionally detached chain.

But now comes the lovely, empowering and slightly surprising moral of my story. Never underestimate the power and significance of your own small but reputable, fitting and thoughtful store. And, never underestimate the power of tact, diplomacy and the personal touch. Thanks to the quick actions of Lucy, The Hambledon's indispensable manager, who was even more affronted than me, and her ability to befriend, cajole and quietly stamp her feet, as well as the brand's sales manager's willingness to make amends and apologise, the accessories were removed from the high street rival. We were validated as a valuable and significant customer and, while our pockets may not be as deep, our commitment to the label has been long lasting and I would argue that our store is more clearly consistent with the supplier's own brand values and fits more naturally with their customer demographic. We were delighted to re-establish our supremacy in this particular arena and pleased with this little vindication of independence.

The brand, to whom we have been loyal for years, offered fulsome apologies, re-emphasised its belief in our ability to represent it, flattered us about the marvellousness of The Hambledon and assured us that the whole incident had been a terrible mistake. Buoyed by thisrenewal of our mutual love and admiration we went to the autumn/ winter appointment yesterday and had a good few hours of confident buying, happy sales predictions and bonhomie. And not a screaming harpy in sight.

- Victoria Suffield is the owner of lifestyle retailer The Hambledon in Winchester, Hampshire.

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